Ruth Bass| Too many seals create a smorgasbord for hungry sharks off of Cape Cod

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RICHMOND — At a Cape Cod beach where the outgoing tide sweeps over the sand for a quarter-mile or more, the unenforced family rule has been never to be the person farthest from shore, wading or swimming or lolling on a float. With the increasing numbers of great white sharks, no one this year needed much reminding.

Occasionally, on the bay side of the Cape, we spotted seals, their round heads popping up in the deeper water just beyond the low-tide beach. Since we've never seen more than seven at a time, we could hardly get our heads around the idea that 50,000 seals call the Cape home. In years past, en route to Monomoy Island, we had seen dozens sleeping on South Beach, but 50,000? Turns out half a million move constantly through the western North Atlantic.

It's no wonder the great white shark population has increased in the Cape area. The sharks are cruising a smorgasbord filled with their stomach's desire. Some people have quickly suggested killing a slew of seals and sharks to solve the problem, but both are protected by law — the seals by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the sharks by a combination of state and federal legislation.

Besides, some scientists say, the sheer number of seals means those killed would quickly be replaced by others. And one scientist asks, "Does the general public have the stomach to remove tens of thousands of seals?" One has only to remember past uproars about culling deer to save gardens or make the herds healthier — or the push to shoot coyotes when too many cats have gone missing.

The sharks are mostly on the open Atlantic side of the Cape, along the arm that stretches toward Provincetown. But when the seals, perhaps seeking safety, came around the tip to our bay, we knew the sharks would follow. And they have been spotted in the area. Still, they're not cause for much umbrella-to-umbrella chat on the beach, national news stories notwithstanding. And we daily noticed that one young man persisted in being far out, peacefully floating on his inflated tube.

While the Cape debates the effect of sharks on tourism, including vacationers and owners of surf shops, we find restaurants, shops, sidewalks and roads very busy with people and cars. And on a recent boat trip into the bay, the several dozen people on board didn't seem to be talking about sharks or scanning the waters for them. One longtime property owner speculated that some visitors might come because of the sharks. Certainly, the scientists are quite excited. Everyone else's apprehension creates their anticipation. A shark research vessel called Ocearch has returned to Nantucket so the crew can tag at least 17 great whites and collect samples of blood, tissue and muscle to study. Ocearch last brought its hydraulic lift to the area in 2016, so sharks could be pulled right out of the water and electronic tags attached. Then, the way whale people follow their behemoths, they'll know where the shark goes.

In the meantime, pilots who fly over the Cape regularly have created a volunteer shark watch. If they see one or a group from the air, they report it, thus expanding the coverage of Cape waters. Pilot Ian Day found a rarely used radio frequency, and members of the Cape Cod Ocean Community have financed purchase of 500 air-band radios that beachgoers can use. If pilots see a shark near shore, they send word, and the radios pass on the information. An app also dings cellphones about shark sightings.

The Cape is definitely on the alert, from lifeguards to pilots, and various beaches have been closed for a day or an hour when sharks are too close to shore. But the umbrellas and sun shelters are up, kites fly, fish boat captains seek stripers, sandcastles rise, footballs are passed, bocce courts are traced in the sand. Wise watchfulness exists. But panic is not in the air.

Ruth Bass is an award-winning journalist. Her website is www.ruthbass.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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